Watching the marginalized Lionel Higgins have his out-of-control Afro being touched by his white students reminded me of a day long ago in New York City. I was one of four people who was waiting for Gregory Hines to come out after his Tony-Award winning performance in “Jelly’s Last Jam.” I regret that I didn’t get my photo taken with him, but the person I was with was starstruck.
Not so the two blonde middle-aged white women. They posed with him in a time before selfies. One woman put her arm around him and petted his hair. Hines was gracious, but I thought that was a curious invasion of personal space.
Hair is not a big topic in “Dear White People,” but it is one aspect of writer/director Justin Simian’s sly discourse on four African American students at the fictional Winchester University. Winchester is an Ivy League school where students can be part of a legacy as is Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell).
The movie takes its name from the brief student radio show that the troubled Samantha “Sam” White (Tessa Thompson) delivers although she’s falling behind in her the course work for her film studies major. She was going out with Troy, son of the dean of students (Dennis Haysbert). Sam and Troy are black. Troy dumped her to date the white daughter of the school’s president (Peter Syvertsen), Sofia (Brittany Curran).
The president and Dean Fletcher have been competing against each other since their college days and have set their sons up as part of the competition. Troy is the head of the traditionally black off-campus house. The president’s son, Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), is the editor-in-chief of a humor magazine that hosts an annual Halloween party–a party so big that it regularly makes national news.
Sam wants the traditionally black co-ed house to protest a new university policy that would break up the racial makeup of the house and runs against Troy to be head of the house. Using an untested app, Sam is a surprise win. Unfortunately, that means Troy needs an extracurricular activity to pad his college life resume. He hopes to write for the humor magazine, but must get the approval of Kurt, his nemesis.
Aggravating the situation is an African American reality-TV producer who is impressed by Sam, but not by the ambitious Coco Connors (Teyonah Parris) who wants to be upper-middle class and covers up her humble upbringing. Coco is determined to gain fame and she takes to YouTube to criticize Sam’s “Dear White People” segments.
Coco makes much about flipping her hair, something that may come naturally for ethnic groups where straight hair is the norm, but it means something else here. Just as Coco means to be sophisticated but is possibly considered a sell-out for her straight-hair, Lionel’s bush of hair is unstyled and he doesn’t use it to be a rebel against white grooming norms, embracing of the natural. He is out of place amongst even the few black students. He’s an outsider, not only because he’s gay and black, but also because he makes a choice to have hair that defines him and almost hides his face. He is, essentially, his hair but without a cause.
Lionel moves from Kurt’s house to Troy’s. Lionel becomes an undercover agent, writing about the tensions between the African American students who are protesting the policy of randomization for the campus newspaper and he begins a flirtation with the gay white editor.
Kurt, led or misled, by Coco decides to hold a blackface party.
I’m not in love with preppies or the Ivy League. I did have a few high school acquaintances attend an Ivy League school. I don’t know if it really helped them. I attended state universities and community colleges. I wasn’t tempted to enter a sorority and I only lived in a dormitory once (in Japan). So the motivations of the African American students in “Dear White People” escapes me.
Yet there are things I clearly recognized in “Dear White People.” Simien has taken some of the concerns of Spike Lee’s “School Daze” and toned down the brashness for a distanced, controlled observant movie. He reminds us of another era, not only by his use of title cards to mark off segments as chapters and his framing moments by almost freezing them with white students gathered here and there with perhaps a black student in the background, but also by having Sam present her black version of “Birth of a Nation.”
When the blackface party goes down, Sam and her cohorts are able to get some solidarity because an Asian American woman happens to be at their meeting since they have better snacks. I don’t really buy that and it would have helped if “Dear White People” had been more inclusive from the start.
One of the defects of “Dear White People” is that it does portray the problems as black and white up until the end. Checking out the statistical information according to the 2011 enrollments, the percentage of Asian Americans is greater than African Americans at the Ivy League schools.
- Asian American: 14.3 %
- Black: 5.8 %
- Latino: 9.9%
- Asian American: 14.6%
- African American: 7.7%
- Latino: 13.2%
- Asian America: 16.5%
- African America: 5.6%
- Latino: 9.4%
- Asian American: 14.2%
- African American: 7.6%
- Latino: 8.9%
- Asian American: 11.8%
- African American: 6.8%
- Latino: 9%
- Asian American: 19%
- African American: 7.1%
- Latino: 8.1%
- Asian American: 17.7%
- African American: 7.4%
- Latino: 8.4%
- Asian American: 15%
- African American: 6%
- Latino: 8%
There is a fear that the statistics indicated an Asian quota according to a 2011 NYTimes article. At the end of “Dear Black People,” a series of photos from infamous racist parties flash on the screen.
I don’t remember seeing a snapshot of the 2013 Duke University “Asia Prime” part in the ending credits. Or for that matter the California Polytechnic “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” party thrown by three fraternities or the Harvard “Conquisto-Bros and Nava-Hos” party.
According to an article on Inquisitr.com, Simien was actually inspired by his experiences at Chapman University and while writing got further inspiration from UC San Diego’s ghetto-themed party. According to the UCSD Wiki, the party was sponsored by an African American comedian Jigaboo Jones. Chapman’s current demographics are 10.2 percent Asian and 1.7 percent African American/black and 14.9 percent Latino. White is 62 percent. The African American percentage is actually very close to the demographics of Orange, the city where Chapman is based (67 percent white, 46 percent Latino, 11.3 percent Asian and 1.6 percent African American). Whereas, the demographics for La Jolla, the city where UCSD is situated is 82.5 percent white, 0.8 percent black and .1 percent Asian. The city of San Diego is 58.9 percent white (with only 45 percent non-Latino), 6.7 percent African American, 28.8 percent Latino (of any race) and 15.9 percent Asian.
African American or blacks are a minority in Chapman, Orange, La Jolla and San Diego. They are not one of the larger minorities in these areas. And racially questionable parties aren’t just problems at Ivy League schools and sometimes what one person might think is cool might be interpreted differently if the majority of participants are white. Race relations are more complicated than black and white and all the shades in between, particularly if one parent (as in the case of Sam) is white. There is a cool assuredness in “Dear Black People” and Simien doesn’t hammer us on the head or get in our faces about the continued problems and questions of race and racism. Don’t expect answers. Our characters don’t find them.
Simien won the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival Directors to Watch, the 2014 Sundance Film Festival U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent and the Gotham Independent Film Awards Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award and the Breakthrough Actor Award (Tessa Thompson).